Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Block’
Habit, as I’ve said before, is a writer’s best friend, and these days, I find myself having to fall back on my old work ethic more than ever. With the publication of The Icon Thief less than four weeks away, it’s easy to forget that I have another novel due in less than nine months. And while November 1, which is when I’m contracted to deliver The Scythian, may seem like a long way off, in order to produce a decent book, I need to start writing now. Over the past couple of weeks, then, I’ve been taking my rough synopsis for the novel and fleshing it out into a blueprint that I can use to write the first draft. In some ways, this is the most crucial step of the process, so it seems like a good time to talk here about what what an outline really means, at least to me, and how it differs from what most of us imagine when we envision the outlining stage. Because a detailed outline is the most useful writing tool I’ve ever found.
Every writer has a different approach to outlining. Some, like Elmore Leonard, don’t do it at all; others, like Lawrence Block, work best from brief notes on a couple of index cards; and a few create an outline that is basically a short novel in itself. I fall squarely in the latter camp. As I’ve noted before, I outline like it’s my second job. Part of this is due to the conventions of the kind of thriller I’ve found myself writing: much of the reader’s enjoyment, at least in theory, comes from the convergence of countless small plot threads and pieces of information, which need to be planned in advance. It’s also because of what I can only describe as a sort of paradoxical laziness. The physical act of writing a first draft is so taxing that the last thing I want is to worry about an unresolved plot problem when I’m just trying to put words on the page. As a result, I’ve found myself dividing the writing process in half: first, I produce a detailed outline, which takes care of the bare bones of story, and only then do I begin the actual writing. For whatever reason, this makes the whole process less painful.
In a way, it’s something like the relationship between a screenplay and a finished movie. When you read a screenplay, you get a lot of information: the order of scenes, all of the dialogue, and enough of a sense of the action to allow you to picture it in your head. All the same, even the greatest script isn’t meant to be a self-contained work of art: it’s a blueprint that is gradually elaborated at every step of the way. A detailed outline is like a script for the novel I hope to write: it contains each important story beat, a sense of dialogue and atmosphere, and a list of objectives, sometimes down to the individual sentence. The result is a document that can approach the length of the final draft itself. For The Scythian, for instance, I’ve already outlined eight chapters, which I expect will come to something substantially less than fifteen thousand words. The number of words in my “outline” so far? Twelve thousand.
Obviously, this approach isn’t for everyone, and even as I look back on what I’ve written here, it sounds somewhat insane. Yet I’ve found that it’s the only way I can produce the sort of fiction I enjoy writing, under what are often considerable time constraints. And far from inhibiting creativity, I find that it actually enhances it. Writing an outline is an elaborate and intellectually challenging sort of game: I don’t need to worry about writing well, but about constructing a series of clearly defined beats that tell the story I want to tell, even in the absence of good prose. Since I live with an outline for weeks, I find myself fussing over it at odd moments, tinkering with it, sometimes radically altering it. And when the time finally comes to write, I have a solid foundation of story on which I can always rely, even if the act of writing itself often takes me in surprising directions. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I approach the outlining process each day, and how I turn a mere synopsis into the blueprint for an actual story.
This week I’m reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the classic handbook of rural living that inspired the back to the land movement. While I don’t intend to relocate to a farm anytime soon, it’s hard not to be inspired by the Nearings’ combination of pluck, idealism, and practicality, which all but cry out to be applied to one’s own life. One of the book’s most appealing sections, for instance, details the building of a stone house, made mostly of stones that the Nearings gradually collected from their own fields, from walks in the woods, and from the roadside, keeping an eye out at all times for “well-shaped rocks.” By so doing, they were simply following the advice of Thomas Tusser, the Tudor poet and author of Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, who wrote:
Where stones be too manie, annoieng thy land,
Make servant come home with a stone in his hand.
By daily so dooing, have plentie yee shall,
Both handsome for paving and good for a wall.
Reading these words, it struck me that this isn’t so different from what a writer does. Writers are gleaners, picking up material wherever they find it, often in the course of doing something else. I’ve spoken before of Lawrence Block’s image of the novelist as a songbird, weaving bits of ribbon and cloth into its nest “for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” In a way, the Nearings’ example is even better, because it encompasses both discipline and serendipity: a writer often finds well-shaped rocks by chance, but only if he was looking for them in the first place. And the habit of looking for material at all times, even in casual reading or conversation, is one of the most important skills that a writer can develop.
Another necessary habit, of course, is saving and remembering what one finds. When the Nearings were building their house, they put up a series of signs on the building site, with labels like “Corner,” “Floor,” and “Chimney,” where they’d set appropriate stones as they found them. Similarly, a writer needs at least a permanent text file or notebook page for any project he might be working on at the time, where he can jot down new ideas or bits of material as they arise. For what I hope will my third novel after The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, for example, I’ve reserved a page in my journal for a better part of a year now, writing down fragmentary thoughts whenever they come to mind. The ideas aren’t in any order; it’s just a heap of stones. But whenever I go back and check it, I’m often surprised by what I find there.
And what about ideas that don’t fit into your current project? These stones deserve to be saved, too. When I was in college, I kept a commonplace book of quotes and ideas, and although I’ve since fallen out of the habit, I still try to keep notes as best I can. (This blog, especially its section on Quotes of the Day, has come to serve much of the same purpose.) And you never know what will later come in handy. A stone that doesn’t seem useful now may end up, to borrow one of the subtlest images in the Bible, as the keystone for a project you haven’t even imagined. The trick is to always keep your eyes open, in libraries and in life. As the Nearings write: “Stone gathering became a real preoccupation on our walks or drives, and it was a rare day when we did not come back ‘with stone in hand.” And that should be a writer’s goal as well.
One of the most frustrating and challenging moments in any writer’s life is when you know where you are and where you want to be going, but have no idea how to get there. In fact, there are times when I feel like one of the gnomes in the celebrated episode of South Park from which the above image is taken. You’re writing a story, and you have some good ideas for the beginning and the end, but the part in the middle is a mystery. This unknown element can be as small as the distance between two minor plot points or as large as the entire second act, but in all cases, the essential problem is the same. All you need is something to get from point A to point C, and, ideally, it should be brilliant.
This situation is a familiar one for writers of mystery and suspense fiction. A good mystery novel should come off as a perfect puzzle, in which every element was carefully premeditated and laid in beforehand, but in practice, large gaps are often left by the author to be filled in later. In Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block relates that while writing the first installment in his popular series of Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, he got within two or three chapters of the ending before finally figuring out who the villain was, thanks to a chance remark by a friend. “I had to do some rewriting to tie off all the loose ends,” Block notes, “but the book worked out fine.” I have a feeling that most mystery novelists could tell similar stories. And as long as the result looks preordained, it’s perfectly okay.
I’ve encountered similar issues all the time in my own writing, even though I outline like crazy. With The Icon Thief, I knew from early on in the process where the story would end: in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with my main character standing before the closed door leading into Étant Donnés. How to get her there, however, remained a problem for a long time, and it wasn’t until I had written more than a third of the novel that I managed to come up with a solution. Similarly, in House of Passages, there’s a moment when I knew that a character had to make a series of brilliant deductions to advance to the next stage of the plot. But what? I could see the blank space where they would go, but not the deductions themselves, and like Block, I ended up going back and laying in most of my clues after the fact.
And yet this is one of the great pleasures of writing. I’ve previously quoted Walter Murch on the fact that you don’t want to answer all of the questions posed by a work of art at its earliest stages. In fact, you should hope that serious questions remain unanswered until the very end. In any artistic pursuit, once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, there’s always the risk that you’ll become bored or complacent. The best way to avoid this is by deliberately leaving problems for yourself to solve, trusting that luck, intuition and skill will carry you through. Almost invariably, they do—or at least well enough so that, with the proper adjustments, nobody will ever notice the seams. In the process, you’ll grow as a writer. And maybe, in the end, you’ll even profit.
In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:
I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.
Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.
The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).
My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)
Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.
In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)
Well you can imitate everyone you know
Yes you can imitate everyone you know…
—The Beatles, “Dig a Pony”
Writing, like almost everything else in life, is learned primarily by imitation. Even the greatest writers began by imitating artists they admired—the young Shakespeare, for one, openly imitated Marlowe. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the more thoroughly and consciously you imitate your artistic heroes when you first begin to write, the easier it is to produce original work later on, once you’ve acquired the tools you need.
Here’s how John Lennon, who seems like so great an original today, describes his earliest period as a songwriter:
In the early days, I would often write a melody, a lyric in my head to some other song because I can’t write music. I would carry it around as somebody else’s song and then change it when putting it down on paper, or down on tape—consciously change it because I knew somebody’s going to sue me or everybody’s going to say, “What a rip-off.”
Lennon, it goes without saying, eventually learned how to write melodies on his own. And while it might seem hard for a novelist to imitate another writer to the same degree—by writing a novel that mirrors an existing novel beat for beat, as lyrics might be fitted to an existing melody—it’s certainly possible. Lawrence Block, in his nice little book Writing the Novel, quotes a story from the novelist Harry Crews:
I guess I really learned, seriously learned, how to write just after I got out of college when I pretty much literally ate Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair…I took The End of the Affair, and I pretty much reduced the thing to numbers. I found out how many characters were in it, how much time was in it…I found out how many cities were in the book, how many rooms, where the climaxes were and how long it took Greene to get to them.
…And then I said, “I’m going to write me a damn novel and do everything he did.” I knew I was going to waste—but it wasn’t a waste—a year of my time. And I knew that the end result was going to be a mechanical, unreadable novel. But I was trying to find out how the hell you did it. So I wrote the novel, and it had to have this many rooms, this many transitions, etc. It was the bad novel I knew it would be…And that’s how I learned to write.
Now, it probably isn’t necessary to write an entire novel using this method—although it couldn’t hurt, if you’re serious about internalizing the basics of craft. But it’s often a helpful exercise to go through a novel you admire and break it down to an outline of chapters, scenes, and characters. Ideally, since you’re going to be studying it so closely, the book should represent the genre at its peak: for a thriller, for example, it might be The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs. And once you’ve outlined somebody else’s story, you’ll be in a much better position to outline an original work of your own.
Without the nuts and bolts of craft, which can only be acquired through imitation and hard work, even the most original story will remain unexpressed. But in the end, of course, true originality can’t be reduced to a formula: